Sunday, December 11, 2005

India | Rajgir | Vulture's Peak | Kalachakra

Sometime after his Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree  at Bodhgaya the Buddhas traveled to Vulture’s Peak, near the town of Rajgir, also in current-day Bihar State, and began expounding his new teachings.
Vulture's Peak
Among the discourses taught here, according to tradition, were the Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom, sutras. Although considered to be based on the Buddha’s teachings, most modern scholars maintain that the Prajnaparamita and many of the other Mayahana sutras were actually composed between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D., several hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death. The traditionalist viewpoint asserts, however, that the Buddha did in fact teach them but that they were only written down at a later date. A mythological explanation of this traditional viewpoint avers when the Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita it was so far beyond the ken of most of the audience that it was understood and remembered only by so-called Nagas who happened to be present. According to Buddhist and Hindu mythology, Nagas are benevolent serpent-like beings who inhabit a watery level of the underworld. The nagas who heard the Buddha’s teachings then became the guardians of the Prajnaparamita and various other Mahayana sutras, including the well-known Lotus Sutra and Pure Land Sutra. “This temporary hiding of the teaching,” scholar of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman writes, “is believed to have been prophesied by the Buddha himself. Before the Prajnaparamita could be revealed, the Buddha “considered that the developing societies of his time in India needed four hundred years of preparation and purification by the monastic education and renunciative ethic he taught more openly . . .” According to this traditional viewpoint, when the time was finally ripe the these teachings were presented by the Nagas to Nagarjuna, an historical figure who traditionally is thought to have taught at Nalanda University in the second century A.D. Najarjuna then propagated them in the human realm. Whatever their origin, the Prajnaparamita sutras now make up the core of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, tradition.
Another view of Vulture's Peak
According to tradition, while the Buddha was in his physical body here at Vulture’s Peak delivering the Prajnaparamita an emanation of the Buddha appeared at the same time in south India, at a place called the Dhanyakataka Stupa, and taught the Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time, doctrine to Suchandra, the King of Shambhala, who had traveling to India from his kingdom somewhere in the north specifically to receive these teachings.
A rendering of the Dhanyakataka Stupa in Samye Monastery, Tibet. The Kalachakra Diety can be seen in the white part of the stupa.
Detail of Kalachakra Diety and his consort Vishvamati
The Dalai Lama had been in Bodhgaya in January of 2002 to perform a public initiation into these Kalachakra teachings. As with the Prajnaparamita, however, mainstream Western scholars have averred that the main texts of the Kalachakra doctrine were not actually taught by the Buddha but were probably composed in the ninth or tenth centuries A.D., perhaps in eastern Afghanistan, although numerous other sites have been posited.

What has been called the “traditional, sacred history,” of the Kalachakra relates, however, that the Buddha did in fact teach this doctrine, but the King of Shambhala, serving much the same function as the Nagas in the Prajnaparamita saga, took it back to his kingdom where it was safeguarded until the time was right for its Propagation in the Purely Human Realm, in this case in 966 or 967 A.D. when a wandering pandit by the name of Tilopa is supposed to have brought the teachings from Shambhala to Nalanda University. Among the adherents of this version is the 14th Dalai Lama himself. He alludes to this when he says that the Kalachakra teachings “were given by mystical manifestations of the Buddha to those in a state of purified karma and perception,” referring here to the King of Shambhala and his entourage. For the sake of more literal minded scholars who have suggested that the Kalachakra doctrine developed much later and was only posthumously attributed to the Buddha, the current Dalai Lama adds, “it does not matter much whether or not any specific tantra in question was expounded during the life of the historical Buddha. Yet, in fact the Root Tantra (Mulatantra) of Kalachakra was set forth by the Buddha during his life.”

Since according to the “traditional, sacred history” of the Kalachakra the Buddha was here at Vulture’s Peak in his physical body when his emanation taught the Kalachakra doctrine to the King of Shambhala in south India, it was not surprising that the Dalai Lama, while in Bodhgaya in January of 2002 to give the Kalachakra initiation, decided to make a pilgrimage to this hallowed site. By complete coincidence I happened to be here at Vulture’s Peak the day before he arrived.
Monks at Vulture's Peak
Western Supplicant at Vulture's Peak
Although later press reports maintained that the Dalai Lama’s trip from Bodhgaya to Rajgir was unannounced and done in great secrecy for security reasons, in fact every souvenir salesmen on the pathway to Vulture’s Peak knew that he was to arrive the next day and were eagerly looking forward to windfall sales. There was even excitement among the beggars, who were usually in a state of near catatonic detachment.
Beggars on the road to Vulture's Peak before the announcement of the Dalai Lama's arrival.
The next morning I took a rickshaw from my hotel in the old town of Rajgir and arrived at the entrance to the parking lot just as the sun was rising at six o’clock. There were perhaps a hundred Indian army troops and other security guards already present and the entire area, including the parking lot itself and the path to Vulture’s Peak was closed to the public. One Indian army officer ordered my rickshaw man in no uncertain terms to turn around and leave immediately. Presumably I could have went out to the main road and waited for a glimpse of the Dalai Lama as he sped by in a car, but since I had already seen him pass by in the street in Bodhgaya a few days earlier this didn’t seem necessary. Instead I went back to the old town of Rajgir and spent the morning visiting some pilgrimage sites in the nearby hills, and later soaking in the famous hot springs so highly touted by the first century A.D. poet Asvaghosha.

About three o’clock in the afternoon I returned to Vulture’s Peak. At first glance everything was back to normal. The tea shops in the parking lot were open and the souvenir salesmen and beggars were back at their posts on the walkway to the peak. I asked one trinket salesman if he had seen the Dalai Lama. He snorted in disgust. “Nobody saw him. The army made everyone leave. Me, the other people selling things, the beggars, everyone. I sold nothing all morning. There were army everywhere, up on the hillside in the rocks, up at Vulture’s Peak, up at the stupa on the top of the mountain, everywhere. Now look. Everyone who came with him left. There’s no one here.”

I continued on up to Vulture’s Peak and indeed the pathway was deserted. I was the only visitor in sight. Arriving at the platform on the top of Vulture’s Peak I discovered the policeman and the souvenir salesman who are usually stationed here on their knees, with their backs to me, busily stuffing white katas (prayer scarves) into two huge plastic garbage bags. As I approached the police jumped up and shouted, “Go, this area is closed for the day.” His companion hastily closed the now-stuffed garbage bags and went to hide them behind some nearby rocks. Obviously they had gathering up all the katas left by the Dalai Lama’s party and were planning on selling them the next day. “I just want to take some photos,” I explained. “OK, Ok, take some photos, and then you must leave,” muttered the policeman, who seemed nonplussed by being caught taking the katas. I asked him if he was here was when the Dalai Lama visited. “Of course, I am a policeman,” he said, instantly regaining his pride and puffing up his chest. How did the Dalai Lama get up here, I wondered? “He walked, of course,” said the policeman. I was surprised. True, it was only a little over a half mile from the parking lot and only 369 feet in elevation gain, but I assumed that he would have been carried up, like the Chinese monk Fa Hien in the 5th century and the Thai monks I had seen on my current trip. From what I had seen of the Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya he didn’t look hale and hearty enough to be making a walk like this, especially in the enervating heat. “Yes, he came and left those,” continued the policeman, pointing to two bouquets of flowers and some katas on the altar in the center of the platform. Apparently these two guys didn’t have the nerve to take the katas left the Dalai Lama himself. Or maybe they gathered them up after I left.
Prayer scarves and bouquets left by the Dalai Lama on Vulture's Peak
It was not quite clear how the Dalai Lama had traveled from Bodhgaya to Rajgir. I later heard that he had been flown here in an Indian Army helicopter, but this may have just been a rumor. He was to have returned to Bodhgaya from Rajgir by the road I had taken to get here but this plan was changed at the last moment as a security precaution and instead he was driven to Patna, the capital of Bihar, about sixty miles to the northeast. A story in the Times of India (January 14) explained:
The aides of the Dalai Lama stated that his visit to Rajgir, once a citadel of Buddhism, was a pilgrimage. The Dalai Lama did not speak to journalists in Patna and retired early to bed. Police sources indicated that they changed the route of the Dalai Lama due to threat perception. They said the Bodh Gaya-Rajgir road passes through the pockets under the influence of the Maoist Communist Centre. The condition of the road is bad, and it is vulnerable to planting of landmines. The Rajgir-Patna-Bodh Gaya route is much more safe.
What remained unclear was why he wasn’t taken back by helicopter, if that was in fact the way he arrived, or if he had been taken by car from Bodhgaya to Rajgir, as some sources averred, why it suddenly became unsafe to return that way. In any case, the Dalai Lama eventually returned to Bodhgaya from Patna and soon began the lengthy rituals leading up to the Kalachakra initiation.
Another view of Vulture's Peak; the walk up did in the Dalai Lama
I had gone, along with 50,000 or more other people, to the huge fenced-in field where the Kalachakra initiation was held to witness most of these opening ceremonies. I was also there on the day when the Dalai Lama made the startling announcement that the Kalachakra initiation would have to be canceled. It seemed his trip to Vulture’s Peak was to blame. Addressing the huge audience he said:
The reason why I briefly wanted to meet you today is not connected with spiritual or religious matters. I wanted to brief you on the events and developments and what we should do in the future. When I came from South India to Bodhgaya I was in excellent health. A week back I made a pilgrimage to Nalanda and Vulture’s Peak. Normally in Tibetan tradition we believe that if we face difficulties and obstacles during our pilgrimage we will gain more spiritual merit. So I walked up to the Vulture’s Peak with a help of a walking stick. For a year I have had some minor problems with my knee. Remembering the many kindnesses of the Buddha I made this pilgrimage. I perspired a lot. I prayed a great deal at the Vulture’s Peak. I think I became ill because I was exposed to extreme temperatures. In the afternoon I had lunch and made a pilgrimage to Nalanda. After that I went by car to Patna. The journey by car was two hours but after about an hour in the car I developed extreme pain in my stomach. The pain in my stomach increased when I arrived at the hotel in Patna. Also I perspired a lot. I took both Tibetan and Western medicines and my basic illness has been cured but I think it will take some time for me to recover completely . . . Because of the prolonged prayers and the many hours of preparation for the conduct of the Kalachakra Teachings I thought in my present health it would be foolish on my part to persist in giving what is basically a very exhausting set of teachings and empowerments . . . So I have decided to hold the Kalachakra Teachings again in Bodhgaya between the eleventh and twelfth months of the Tibetan calendar next year . . . I would like to state that you should not be disappointed by the postponement of the Kalachakra Teachings. This is because the reason why you are here is because of your great motivation to spiritually benefit from being in such a sacred place and because of this you will have accumulated great merit for every step you take.
In addition to the additional Kalachakra initiation in Bodhgaya the following year which the Dalai Lama promised in his statement, he was also to give one in Graz, Austria, in November of 2002. With the cancellation of the January 2002 initiation I immediately made plans to attend the one in Graz.
Line of Dharma Wear unveiled at Graz during the Kalachakra Initiation there.
This January the Dalai Lama is giving a Kalachakra Initiation at Amaravati, India, site of the Dhanyakataka Stupa. Although he has given 29 initiations all over the world, this is the first at the site where according to tradition the Buddha taught the Kalachakra to Suchandra, First King of Shambhala. The internet is Roiling with Rumors that this will be the last Kalachakra Initiation given by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, to my knowledge, has made no public pronouncements on this.